Victor LaValle is the author of the short story collection Slapboxing with Jesus, three novels, The Ecstatic, Big Machine, and The Devil in Silver, and two novellas, Lucretia and the Kroons and, most recently, The Ballad of Black Tom. He’s received a Whiting Award, a Guggenheim fellowship, and the key to Southeast Queens. He teaches at Columbia University.
Here is an excerpt of our fiction editor Andrew Heath’s recent interview with him…
When did you first get serious about writing, as in, when did you realize it was something you were good at and wanted to pursue on a full-time basis? What was your earliest work like? Who did you read at the time?
I felt I turned serious when I was about thirteen or fourteen. By that I mean I was reading a lot and decided to try my hand at writing short stories and I even sent two of them out. Both were rejected, but that part doesn’t matter. They deserved to be rejected, but I still had the intent, the fire, you know? That’s what makes anyone a serious writer, in my opinion, producing the pages. And I did dream, even then, of making my entire living from the writing alone. Still dreaming about that part.
My early stuff could be called “horror” if you’re being generous. Generous because most of it wasn’t very scary. Largely I found myself ripping off the much better fiction of the people I’d been reading. Stephen King, Shirley Jackson, H.P. Lovecraft, Clive Barker, and many more in that vein.
Have you matured as a writer?
I’ve matured in the sense that I am able to write with a greater sympathy for people, characters, who are nothing like me. I understand that I’m not the center of the universe and that every other human being in the world is as rich with complication and surprising motivation as I am. My early work, like when I was a teenager, often had a “good” person at its center and then a handful of vaguely bad people who acted against him or her. Now I’m more likely to have a cast of characters who all think they’re acting out of understandable, if not always good, motivations. This usually forces my plots to become more complicated and makes my books better.
Your earlier work is very gritty and very dark. A story like “Slave,” for example is incredibly frightening and tragic and I think the tragedy is somewhat fueled by the realism employed there. The Devil in Silver is frightening too, but the fear it evokes is more genre-related. I guess my question is: how does genre affect or inform your work?
“Slave” is the best short story I ever wrote. It’s brutal. I’m very proud of it. It didn’t need me to throw in anything more than the facts of the main character’s life. That was horrific enough. The Devil in Silver is about a mental hospital and the lives of both patients and staff inside a poorly run, if not downright evil, mental health system. The lives of the characters inside, if approached realistically, could easily read as rough as the life of the boy in “Slave.” But what works in a short story might not always work in a novel, at least not for me. I wouldn’t want to write a novel-length version of “Slave,” if only because it would hurt me too much. The reality would tip over from brutal to numbing. So the aspects of the horror genre that filtered into The Devil in Silver were there to carry some of the weight of the lives inside the hospital. Some pretty terrible things happen to those patients and none of that treatment is fiction. But in order to get a reader to really bear witness to those lives I used a story that would pull them through. I can’t say that’s down to genre but more the difference between writing something short and something long.
When you came to Mills last year you talked about having your wife put a bike lock around your neck to get the feeling right for a scene in a book. Any other method-acting-type things you’ve done for your writing?
Oh, sure. I do almost everything that shows up in my books. Or at least some version of it. Even the story we talked about earlier, “Slave,” was based on some experiences I had/witnessed when I ran away from home for a very short time around the age of fourteen. I haunted the Port Authority and Times Square and met a kid who became the inspiration for Rob. When I was writing the story in grad school around age 25 or so, I went back to the Port Authority, back to a specific bathroom where I first met that kid. The beautification of Times Square had already begun by that point (it was about 1996 or 1997) but some of the old grime was still there. Even just walking the old paths, standing in the old places, can be enough to make a place/time/event more vivid.
You can read the full interview in our upcoming journal, Issue 18 on Transcendence. You can pick one up at our book release party at Octopus Literary Salon in Oakland, CA on April 28th.